A (Dalton) Highway Runs Through It

homeImgThroughout Skip Walker’s 40 plus years of working in Arctic Alaska he’s kept his feet, and his research, firmly planted on and near the Dalton Highway. Walker, Director of the University of Alaska’s Alaska Geobotany Center, first visited Arctic Alaska in 1969 while working on an oil rig at Prudhoe Bay. Since then, he completed his master’s thesis at Barrow and his Ph.D. at Prudhoe Bay. Walker returns to the Dalton Highway each year in part for its stunning landscape. Photo: Alaska Geobotany Center

His subsequent research has led him all over Arctic Alaska, Canada and Russia studying human-induced and natural disturbances on Arctic landscapes, but he always comes back to Arctic Alaska and the Dalton Highway. His spoke with Polar Field Services about the course he has offered, along with UAF faculty Martha Reynolds and Amy Breen, as part of the UAF summer session curriculum. During this class, titled Arctic Alaska Environmental Change: Field Excursion to the North Slope, Walker shares the wonders of Arctic Alaska, both natural and human, along the more than 400-mile stretch of notoriously rugged road between Fairbanks and Deadhorse.

Skip Walker in the environment he loves most. Photo: Alaska Geobotanty Center

“The foundation of geobotany lies in geography and geology. We see plants on the surface but in order to understand them and their ecosystems we must also consider the bedrock and the soils derived from that bedrock,” explains Walker. “Everything is connected. There are many other controls in the way an ecosystem responds when disturbed and in how it recovers.”

Walker specializes in ecosystem disturbance and recovery from events associated with the oil industry such as oil spills, salt spills, excessive dust, and seismic exploration. Students see firsthand the aftermath of these events.

“The first three days of the course are very busy,” says Walker. “Not only are students getting a crash course in permafrost and boreal forest vegetation both in the classroom and in the field, they are also developing their own research projects. During the field excursion, they focus on these projects and then give a presentation during the last two class days. They also help do the field planning in terms of food and packing up field gear.”

Fungi on the road. Photo: Alaska Geobotany Center

After that orientation, the group of eight students and three instructors hits the road. Daily activities during their 10-day road trip vary in order to capitalize on opportunities presented by an area. Students see a wide variety of arctic ecosystems and plant communities, from the boreal forest around Fairbanks to the foothills of the Brooks Range and the arctic coastal plain near Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. The focus of the trip is on plants, but with major emphasis also on permafrost, geology, and wildlife, with a secondary focus on how the Dalton Highway, the trans-Alaska pipeline and oilfield infrastructure impact the land and the things living near the infrastructure.

“Students are required to create and turn in a collection of 70 plant species. This is usually a big challenge because it’s totally new for these students,” he says.

The course spends several days on sampling techniques and ecosystem and soil surveys. Sometimes our sampling locations require long hikes, like at Atigun Falls. Walker also takes advantage of opportunities to learn from those in the field, like visiting a multiagency museum and information center in Coldfoot, or hearing about research projects from scientists working at Toolik.

“Talking with people living in small rural communities along the way also provides a human context for much of what we discuss,” he says.

The group camps each night. A 17-person dome tent provides a community space for lectures, group gatherings, and serves as a galley and mess tent when the weather is less than ideal. In the evenings students use their free time to work on projects, journal, socialize or relax.

Students also have the opportunity visit UAF’s permanent weather and permafrost monitoring sites at the Toolik Field Station, where they learn about instrumentation and discuss the science the stations support. Scientists from the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys meet the group to talk about how a warming climate is impacting frozen debris flows, which will, in turn, impact the road. And, of course, they stop for wildlife. Dall sheep, caribou, and musk ox make frequent appearances along the highway so the group stops to discuss how the wildlife interacts with plant life, the road, and the pipeline.

At Prudhoe Bay, students meet with Dr. Bill Streever (BP Exploration Alaska, Environmental Studies Leader) who familiarizes students with oil industry ecological programs and research.

“I think students get a pretty balanced view of the consequences of our reliance on this resource. It’s not just industry PR, but an honest look at the cumulative effects of the oil industry – the problems, management, and vegetation rehabilitation. The infrastructure is pretty overwhelming and so students see the good, the bad, and the ugly. They learn about it all because we follow the road and pipeline all the way,” Walker says. “Students get a lot out of this course. They tell us they like the diversity of the student group, the variety of activities, and seeing so much they’ve never seen before.”

The program usually attracts international students as a result of their advertising through the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) and other Arctic networks. In 2014 students came from Korea, Tibet, the Netherlands, and France. Walker and colleagues hope to attract more students from the US and grow the program to 10 students. Two scholarships are offered each year, usually to Alaskans with a Native American background.

For more on the course, including application information, visit the course website. –Marcy Davis